COLUMBIA - Voters in several South Carolina counties could decide this November to add a penny to their local sales tax to fund school construction, as allowed by a new law that a conservative senator tried to sink.
Counties already collecting
Ten counties already collect an additional penny for schools. Here's when they're set to expire and the current sales tax in those counties:
Cherokee 2016 8 percent
Charleston 2017 8.5 percent
Lexington 2019 7 percent
Horry 2024 7 percent
Chesterfield 2025 (or when $60M is collected) 8 percent
Jasper 2027 (or when $46M is collected) 8 percent
Clarendon 2029 8 percent
Darlington 2030 (or when $48M is collected) 8 percent
Marlboro 2038 8 percent
Dillon 2048 (or when $60M is collected) 8 percent
Source: South Carolina Department of Revenue
The law signed by Gov. Nikki Haley expands to 15 the number of counties where the tax can be collected, if voters approve. An extra penny is already collected for schools in 10 of those counties.
The expansion push originated from Aiken County, where voters soundly defeated a 2010 request to pay for new schools through a property tax hike.
Sen. Shane Massey, a co-sponsor, said the new law provides a fairer funding method that residents are more apt to support. The additional penny sales tax would be paid by all residents, as well as people traveling from outside the county that borders Georgia, as opposed to a property tax increase that hits business and rental properties the most, he said.
"I don't know that this is a good thing everywhere, but I think it's a better option than having property taxes increased," said Massey, R-Edgefield, whose district includes portions of Aiken County.
As the bill moved through the legislative process, lawmakers from other counties wanted to give their school districts the option too, including House Ways and Means Chairman Brian White. The Anderson Republican said his county's five district school boards, as well as the county board, passed resolutions asking for the option. All but one of the county's legislators supported that.
"We didn't promise them passage, just help in getting it before the people," White said.
Sen. Kevin Bryant, R-Anderson, was the exception. He pledged to block the bill's passage after Anderson County was added. His filibuster on the last day of the Legislature's extended session almost killed a compromise worked out by a panel of House and Senate members. With less than 1 ½ hours before adjournment June 19, senators mustered enough votes to force Bryant from the podium and passed the compromise 35-5. The House had approved it unanimously two days earlier.
Bryant, a senator since 2005, said voters expect him to stop a tax increase.
"They're going to get more than a 'no' vote for a tax increase. I'm committed that any tax increase I'm going to pull out all the options," he said.
He then lobbied Haley's office for a veto and was disappointed that a governor elected with help from the tea party signed it.
"The notion that we're not 'taxed enough already' is against everything the TEA party stands for," he said Thursday, emphasizing that the acronym stands for 'Taxed Enough Already.'
Haley said she believes in giving people the opportunity to have their voices heard on decisions that directly affect their families, even though she hopes voters defeat the local referendums the law allows.
"I signed this bill because it lets the voters decide for themselves how they would like their local tax structure to look," she wrote Tuesday in her approval letter.
Bryant has repeatedly argued the law amounts to a $1.7 billion tax increase, if voters in every school district covered under the law approve the penny hike.
However, while the law applies to 15 counties, only Aiken, Anderson, Beaufort, Georgetown and Kershaw could add the penny during the 2015-16 school year. Cherokee could extend the penny it already collects. If all did so, that would generate a combined $67.2 million that year in local sales taxes, according to the state Board of Economic Advisors.
The law sets separate rules for the affected counties. In Aiken and Anderson counties, at least 10 percent of whatever the penny raises would have to go to debt relief.
Previously, state law allowed an "education capital improvements" tax only in Horry and Charleston counties. The new law allows Charleston County to seek an extension of the tax this November, ahead of its February 2017 expiration. Horry County's isn't set to expire until 2024.
Eight other counties already collect the penny through separate, county-specific laws allowing a "school district tax," which expire over the next 34 years. That authority is now grouped into a single law that allows those counties to hold another referendum to continue their tax whenever it would otherwise end, starting with Cherokee in 2016 and Lexington in 2019.
The state School Boards Association has long pushed to extend the option to all school districts but recognized that wasn't politically possible this year.
"We're not going to give up on a statewide bill. It makes too much sense," said association lobbyist Scott Price.